Taboo Episode 1: Recap and Analysis

Taboo is a 2017 BBC television series that takes place in Britain in 1814, when James Keziah Delaney returns to London after spending twelve years in Africa to continue his father’s shipping business legacy. Tom Hardy, star of Revenant, Inception, and Mad Max: Fury Road, works with Steven Knight again after television crime drama Peaky Blinders to portray James Delaney in the 2017 period drama. Hardy had turned down the role of Rick Flagg in Suicide Squad to work on Taboo. Tom Hardy fans will rejoice as they get the chance to see Tom Hardy center stage, with total focus and attention, long screentime, and great dialogue. Curious viewers will learn about the East India Company, and understand its historical context and corrupt power in world history. Watching the trailer, viewers can see fog, dead bodies, committees of stiff, wigged men, a shocked woman, red paint, and a near-naked Tom Hardy with a spear trekking through high grass. They can expect a thrilling drama with elements of horror and history.
James Delaney is introduced when he disembarks a ship and buries a small bag in the land. The next scene flashes to a funeral, where he walks in, to everyone’s shock, especially to Zilpha, his sister (Oona Chaplin, Game of Thrones). He is a ghost, as everyone believed he was dead when he had set off to Africa. After paying his respects to his late father, Delaney walks out, leaving Zilpha in shock, and her husband, Thorne Geary, infuriated. Some time after the funeral, Delaney confronts Zilpha, confessing that he stills loves her. When meeting his lawyer, Thoyt, Delaney learns of his sole inheritance, which does not consist of riches but a small strip of “useless” land called Nootka Sound. Thoyt suggests selling the land, but Delaney doesn’t concur. In a later scene, Thoyt is at a meeting with the East India Company, discussing Delaney’s refusal to sell Nootka Sound, and his mysterious past. At the Delaney home, Delaney finally has a happy reunion with the family servant, Brace. Drinking brandy with Delaney, Brace spills information Delaney’s father left him before his death, including the importance of Nootka Sound, and Thoyt’s attempts to buy it from Horace Delaney while James was in Africa. Delaney moves on to a series of additional meetings with people he knew. He heads to one of his father’s old offices, threatening the prostitute Helga to move her harem out. He pays a large sum of money to an elderly man for the “past, present, and future,” whose been raising a young boy somehow related to Delaney. At her home, Zilpha attempts several times to write a note to her brother, as her husband was outraged about the consequences of Delaney’s presence, including the orders of Horace Delaney’s will. Zilpha emphasizes to her husband that Delaney is her half-brother. After digging up his father’s grave, Delaney visits a doctor who autopsies the corpse. Seeing other dead bodies, Delaney seems to hallucinate, imagining the corpses rising toward him, a possible allusion to his troubled past. The doctor comes up with results via chemical tests, showing that Horace Delaney was poisoned, which slowly killed him and affected his mind. Finally, Delaney meets with the East India Company, who invited him to discuss the trade of Nootka Sound. Delaney is straightforward, stating his understanding that Nootka is a point of dispute between Britain and the United States for its strategic shortcut to China. The East India Company, belligerent, believes Delaney is disloyal to the crown, and continues to push Delaney to accept money for Nootka. Unbudging, Delaney calmly exits, leaving the East India Company fuming. At home, Delaney opens another letter from Zilpha, who asks Delaney to keep the secrets of the past buried.
James Delaney walks through London in a distinct, black outfit, with a long coat and top hat, and a long scar going through his left eye, creating a sense of mystery about him. He seems like a powerful, cold man, yet viewers can see that he has a weakness, as he continues to hallucinate about foggy swamps with rising dead bodies. This may have to do with his past in Africa. During these memories, Delaney speaks a harsh, different language. From researching about Taboo, viewers can learn that Delaney was speaking The Twi language spoken by the Ashanti people of Ghana. Furthermore, Delaney does seem to have feelings for his half-sister, Zilpha. Oona Chaplin, from Game of Thrones, played Talisa Stark, Robb Stark’s wife; she is also the granddaughter of English comic star Charlie Chaplin. Taboo seems to have a few parallels to Game of Thrones, including the themes of incest and historical style. This practice of incest may be a reference to the title, as it is and has always been considered a taboo. Delaney’s experiences and time in Africa may also be considered a taboo, as Londoners turn away from him in fear. When viewers watch Taboo, they have no idea about Delaney, but learn from observation, rather than narration and introduction. This is similar to Game of Thrones, in which viewers are transported directly to the middle of the conflict, and learn about the past from flashbacks and dialogue. Both like and unlike Game of Thrones, Taboo has a clear, yet historically-accurate atmosphere of patriarchy. During the early 19th century, feminism was not a powerful movement. Based on episode 1, Taboo does not have any strong female roles, as Zilpha is under constant supervision and control of her husband. This is similar to the role of Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones, but quite unlike the strong roles of Brienne of Tarth, Daenarys Targaryen, and Arya Stark. Taboo may appeal greatly to an American audience, especially those educated about American history, because it has many historical references to early America, especially during the War of 1812. Nootka Sound is a real area, though it was a place of contention during the 1790s, when the Spanish saw that it had easy accessiblity to China. Instead of engaging in war, the Spanish decided to negotiate with the British and the Dutch, and the Nootka Convention was signed, allowing both nations to trade there. In 1794, after engaging in war with France, Spain and England decided to abandon Nootka Sound, and prevent other nations from using it for trade. Later, America claimed ownership of Nootka in 1819 in the Adams-Onís Treaty, but England argued its sovereignty over Nootka. Their dispute wasn’t resolved until the Oregon Treaty of 1846. Despite these clashes, wars had not occurred because of Nootka, and it does not play as pivotal a role as implied by Taboo. Still, the period drama allows viewers to learn about little-known history about Nootka and the attitudes between the Americans and the British.
After the first episode of Taboo, viewers are left with many burning questions. Naturally, these are “cliffhangers”, that draw in viewers to watch the next episode. Straight from the beginning, viewers never learn why Delaney was burying something, and what he was burying. What is the true nature of Delaney’s relationship with Zilpha? Who was the young boy that Delaney visited? Does it have to do with his relationship with Zilpha? Who killed Horace Delaney, and why? What was Horace’s connection with James in Africa? What are his hallucinations about? Finally, what really happened to James in Africa?
Taboo does have a slow start, but its many questions do indicate that much more will be revealed in later episodes. American viewers can watch Taboo on FX on Tuesdays at 10:00 PM, or on Wednesdays on the FX website or FX app.